By Pamela Seal
Diocese of Lake Charles
Many pastors throughout the Diocese of Lake Charles have been thinking “outside the church building” to allow as many parishioners as possible the opportunity to attend Mass — something many Catholics have longed for since March 17. It was noon that day when public liturgies ceased in the diocese because of the highly contagious COVID-19 virus.
Bishop Glen John Provost lifted the suspension of public Masses on May 1. However, given strict state guidelines of no more than 10 people for indoor gatherings through May 14, several priests turned to prayer gardens, parking lots, city streets, and FM transmitters to welcome back their flock.
The decision to celebrate Mass outdoors is up to each pastor, and while for some it might not be feasible, those pastors who are opening their church doors to the outside are doing so with zeal.
The Rev. Charles McMillin, pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians Catholic Church in Jennings, said outdoor Mass was the only obvious choice for him. The combined regular attendance at his weekend Masses ranges between 850-900 people.
“I am already familiar with celebrating Mass outdoors having done many for youth groups,” said Father McMillin. “I am holding weekday Mass in Our Lady’s prayer garden (next to the rectory) which is more than big enough for the 40-55 people who attend,” he said. “The two Sunday Masses at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. are held in the large grassy area across the street from the church. More than 300 were in attendance for the weekend of May 3.”
Until Gov. John Bel Edwards allows 100 percent capacity for indoor gatherings, Father McMillin said he will continue outdoor Masses daily except Saturday.
“People have loved it. After a weekday Mass one morning, a lady said to me, ‘Oh, Father, I just love having Mass out here in the prayer garden. The sky is so nice, there is a slight breeze, and there are birds singing in the trees all through Mass.’
“Even the kids have been pleased with all of this,” McMillin said referring to the chalk drawings on the church driveway that said things like: Thank you so much for the outdoor Masses, Father.
The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception drew a combined attendance of more than 500 people for the five weekend Masses in front of the 150-year-old church May 9-10. The Very Rev. Rommel Tolentino, pastor, turned to the city of Lake Charles to request a portion of Bilbo Street be closed to accommodate the faithful. Several people even brought their own keepsake kneelers made by the Knights of Columbus from the old kneelers removed during the restoration of the Cathedral in 2019.
Father Tolentino addressed Saturday’s congregation saying, “I wish you could see the view from where I am standing. It is awesome to see so many people at Mass. It makes me emotional.”
He reminded everyone that God has allowed the suffering of this pandemic to happen to us for his own reasons, and that our sufferings have redemptive value when we bring them to the cross. “God is helping us become saints,” said Rev. Tolentino.
At the conclusion of the Cathedral’s Saturday vigil Mass, Dalia Matheus of Moss Bluff said she is so happy the community is returning to church. “It’s rewarding that we can receive the Eucharist again,” she said. “I love the Cathedral and come here every day during the week.”
Brenda and Barry Leger of Lake Charles attended Saturday’s Mass with Brenda’s parents, Fred and Nena Rodriguez visiting from Querétaro, Mexico. “The Mass was surreal,” said Brenda. “What a blessing. You could see all the work that went into putting this Mass together.”
St. Theodore Catholic Church in Moss Bluff celebrated its 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass outdoors on May 3 and May 10. According to the Very Rev. Aubrey Guilbeau, pastor, there were close to 300 in attendance the first weekend it was offered. He said he received many positive comments.
“People were hungry for Mass and the Eucharist,” Father Guilbeau said. “Some reflected on how the outdoor Mass made them think of what it would have been like when Jesus preached to the outdoor crowds. Some commented that celebrating the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist surrounded by the beauty of the outdoors reminded them of the glory of God’s creation.”
Father Guilbeau made special note of the attentiveness of children during the Mass saying, “Maybe because this was so out of the usual way we celebrate Mass, it caught their attention.”
A car with a working radio is all one needed to participate in Mass at St. Margaret of Scotland Catholic Church. The Very Rev. Ruben Villarreal, administrator, and Rev. Samuel Orsot, parochial vicar, had been offering “drive-in” Mass at 4 p.m. on Saturday and 10 a.m. on Sunday. Parishioners who could not sign up for the 10-person indoor service, could attend Mass and receive Holy Communion at an altar in the parking lot, from their cars. The use of an FM transmitter allowed people to tune in on their car radio to hear the liturgy of the Mass. The weekend of May 2-3 drew upwards of 115 vehicles.
For parishioners of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Sulphur, the Rev. Timothy Goodly offered an outdoor Mass at 11 a.m. on May 10 under the porte cochere. For those watching the live-streamed indoor Mass from their cars in the church parking lot at 4 p.m. on Saturday and 9 a.m. on Sunday, the reception of Holy Communion was offered following Mass.
“Streaming From The Parking Lot” is how the Very Rev. Anthony Fontenot, pastor of Christ the King Catholic Church, decided to reach his parishioners. He was already live-streaming daily Mass and 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass but added his full schedule of weekend Masses May 9-10. With the 10-person limit of people inside the church, all others were welcome to park in the CTK parking lot to watch the live-stream on their own smart device. Following reception of the Holy Eucharist inside the church, Father Fontenot went out to each vehicle and distributed communion to individuals in parked cars.
The Rev. Jeffrey Starkovich, pastor of St. Pius X Catholic Church in Ragley, took advantage of the outdoor Mass format for his parishioners on May 3 and May 10. From comments posted on the church’s Facebook page, St. Pius parishioners are grateful.
Rachel McBride said the Mass was the best gift ever! Many thanks to you (Starkovich) and everyone who made it possible. Bridget Sonnier said she could have sat out there all day! It felt great to be back at our Sunday church home! Douglas Hamer thanked Father Starkovich for his innovative approach to provide an opportunity to receive Holy Communion. Emily Reeves said it was one of her favorite services ever.
The Very Rev. Matthew Cormier, pastor of St. Henry Catholic Church, celebrated an outdoor bilingual (Spanish/English) Mass at 6 p.m. on May 9 with an excellent turnout. Father Cormier expressed how wonderful it was to see so many parishioners come out to worship and receive the Lord.
Bishop Provost’s Sunday Mass continues to be televised on KPLC at 9:30 a.m. for anyone who is unable to attend Mass. Faithful in the diocese remain dispensed from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of obligation but are reminded of live-streaming options online through several church parish websites and/or Facebook pages.